Dir. Eric Rohmer. Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Francoise Fabian, Marie-Christine Barrault
Pascal even condemned mathematics at the end of his life, Jean-Louis (Trintignant) says. He thought it was just another way to get unnecessarily distracted, a great temptation that pulls the mind away from faith in God. Nobody in the room, Jean-Louis included, seems to think of this as a particularly compelling way to live. As much as Jean-Louis’ Christianity inflects the film—a practice which appears to be “religious but not spiritual,” especially given the way he explains that he was raised Catholic and merely kept it up—he certainly does not seem likely to give up his own mathematical hobbies for the sake of his faith. Maud (Fabian) and Vidal (Antoine Vitez) are both atheists and are unlikely to give the idea credence anyway. It’s not an endlessly quotable line, but it is essential to Jean-Louis’ struggle. The truly holy thing to do, the saintly thing to do, is to give up his lust for Maud and his sudden, strange, checklist affection for Francoise (Barrault) in one swoop. Pascal would have done so. But Jean-Louis says explicitly that he is not trying to become a saint, and so he must move on to mathematics. He must make a Pascalian wager, and this is where the movie strikes oil.
There’s something a little refreshing about watching a man try to come of age properly by figuring out which woman is right for him when the literature usually reverses the sexes. There’s also something distinctly retrograde about the choice of women being a mid-thirties divorcee who likes sex or a seemingly demure Catholic coed. If I were inclined to be charitable, I would point to Francoise’s own sexual history as proof that she is not the unsullied virgin Jean-Louis sees in her (or to the possibility that this could be a film from Francoise’s point of view called “My Night with a Guy Who Came into My Room for Matches”); if I were inclined to be critical, I would argue that the film spends so much time making Francoise chaste that it becomes our dominant perception of her, which is of course meant to contrast with Maud’s sexual liberation just as her dark hair is meant to meaningfully contrast Francoise’s fair head. I’m more inclined to read “retrograde” and “critical” into this, personally, especially given Jean-Louis’ frequent comments to the effect that women have been his moral teachers as if that was their job; there’s too long a history of women being the supposed foil to masculine ardor, and too many cases in which women are punished for not being good enough foils. In either event, there is at least a little complexity to the story, even if the broad strokes are somewhat regressive.
What shines through in the story is that Rohmer manages to use Pascal to tap into what is a fairly universal idea: the one who got away. Jean-Louis is thirty-four years old and unmarried, has lived most of his adult life in foreign countries where he didn’t have any roots, and now that he has come back to France he is living in a little town outside Clermont. He seems like a perfectly attractive man, one who will live a shockingly conservative live in the post-’68 detritus, All the same it seems like he’s running out of time; he has reached an age when one’s clock encroaches upon one’s “principles.” He sees a pretty girl in church. He tries to follow her through the streets, although he loses the scent a few times. He tells himself that he will marry this girl. (Erm.) By the time he meets Vidal, much less Maud, he’s made a decision for his life. Jean-Louis wants to marry a nice Catholic girl and settle down. It’s simply that Maud presents opportunities that would require him to renounce his principles a smidge, and in so doing would renounce the principled views he has of Francoise. In a short epilogue five years later, Jean-Louis and Francoise are married and have a son. He seems perfectly happy with her, and she seems perfectly happy with him, and their son is of course blissfully happy too. But when they run into Maud walking off the beach as they walk towards it, the old question raises its head again. And for that to work, the film absolutely needs the performance of a lifetime from Francoise Fabian. It gets just that.
I don’t think I’ve seen a sexier screen performance than Fabian’s, a performance which insinuates and teases and lures but never gives itself over to something as déclassé as nudity or dirty talk. (Nor would she sully a moment by saying exactly what she wants; she would never press herself on another person.) Maud is a brittle person who is a master at hiding the cracks in her facade, perhaps most of all when she makes it clear what troubles she has endured. Her husband was a nice enough person, but she came to truly dislike him, and so they divorced in favor of the lovers they were keeping. Her lover was a wonderful person too, but he died in a car crash. Maud presents Jean-Louis with a delicious set of options: she appears dissatisfied with her current state (Clermont, her not-really-a-relationship with Vidal, etc.) but she appears capable of facilitating intense satisfaction for him. The suggestion, of course, is that Jean-Louis could satisfy her in return, a temptation which seems tailor-made to appeal to the arrogance of men like Jean-Louis. and, bless Trintignant, his awkward clambering onto her bed prove that he’s not likely.. I sleep nude, she tells him. I hate to have whatever I’m wearing twisted around me when I wake up. When Jean-Louis decides to stay, he first opts for the chair, wrapping a blanket around himself. “I swear I won’t touch you,” she says to him, “and you I thought had self-control.” Lauren Bacall wouldn’t have been able to say that with the panache Fabian does. For all this sexiness, the movie actively suggests that the two of them would not work out as a couple. Aside from their different religious viewpoints, there are too many lines of dialogue in which Maud says that she got along with her ex-husbands or ex-boyfriends but didn’t necessarily love them; one can all too easily see a few years of marriage turning into that sort of cordial dislike between Maud and Jean-Louis.
As for Francoise, who is likewise beautiful, she is emphatically not sexy. Maud makes herself engaging. Francoise is removed from Jean-Louis even when the two of them are married. (One wonders, maybe unjustly, if the two of them are having much sex five years on; these are two principled Catholics with one child. I think the movie is willing to open itself to that question, though.) In the end I think this is where “the one who got away” makes its most powerful play. Jean-Louis and Maud never do grind the organ. Jean-Louis’ principles get in the way of morning sex, which she appears to be open to until he begins to pull away after having initiated the contact. “I prefer people who know what they want,” she says, and closes the door on Jean-Louis. Francoise might become amiable eventually, but it’s hard to imagine her having the confidence or the experience to either get into such a situation or, scarier still, remove herself from it. She pushes at Jean-Louis’ arms when he’s too close, and he is just gentlemanly enough to understand what she means. Therein lies the Pascalian wager. If there are two options, Option Ineffectual A and Option Unlikely B, a 10% chance of B means I must choose it. (This paraphrases Vidal, who uses a weird example about history.) The consequences are catastrophic if I live my life by Option A but it turns out to be Option B; my life is different, perhaps less wonderful, but safer if I choose Option B. It is not difficult to read Maud as A and Francoise as B. From this perspective, Jean-Louis chooses what is likely the maximum happiness for himself, a path which does not force him to move too far away from his own beliefs and principles and, indeed, preferences. (How many times does Maud tease Jean-Louis about his taste for blondes?) Where the movie uses Pascal it may have done better to invoke Kant’s categorical imperative, which is a clause I cannot believe I just wrote. Jean-Louis, foregrounded with “My Night at Maud’s” and a focus on him and with a camera that does have some male gaze attached to it, does not make a choice based on the happiness of Francoise or Maud; he chooses the happiness primarily for himself and lets the chips fall where they may from that point without regard for how the world might be different if his choice were more universally applied. Perhaps Maud, burning through her second marriage five years on, would have been far happier if she had not let Jean-Louis get away, as the movie implies in its last few moments. But the Pascalian wager only works when one person is involved, for God or the universe are unlikely to be hurt by one’s probabilistic cast of the die. Perhaps the mathematics Pascal decried were right to be so condemned, for Jean-Louis has almost certainly acted inhumanely by entrusting his life to the percentages.